Rhythm and Fuse
can you tell a real drummer?
Can you tell the difference between the sound of a drum kit and a drum machine? Dave Sinclair asks percussive people to set skins against circuits.
"I'd really like to hear a real drum. It's all synthetic percussion, it's all the same and it's dull." On a recent edition of Radio One's Round Table, Iain McNabb of Icicle Works was passing comment on Nik Kershaw's record "Dancing Girls".
"I like groups that play real drums and guitars," McNabb continued. "I don't like all this Fairlight music, all computerised and everything." The next record on was "Plastic Man" by Katrina and The Waves, prompting McNabb to comment: "Once again we were listening to a computer on the rhythm section... It's so easy just to use a drum machine like this..."
"That's a real drummer though," interrupted presenter Richard Skinner.
"I don't think so," replied McNabb.
'No, that was definitely a real drummer," said Skinner. "A man," he added helpfully.
"Well he was playing like a computer," concluded the unrepentant McNabb. "A really pedestrian rhythm section."
Drum machines have now become so sophisticated that it's becoming hard for 'experts', let alone the punter on the street, to tell whether a particular song has been recorded using a real drummer or a machine.
"The increased programming possibilities and the range of sounds now available for use on drum machines make it very hard to spot them on recordings," David Gilmour told me. "I used to think I could always tell, but now I'm certain that I can't on a number of occasions."
The age of the machine has been upon us for a long time, but it is only in the last few years that drummers, the heirs to the most primitive musical instrument known to us, have come face to face with a brave new world that is capable of dispensing with their services altogether, and where the most commercially successful recording of all time, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was made with a Linn drum. Iain McNabb was surprised to discover a real drummer playing on the Katrina and The Waves record, but for most people it would probably come as a surprise to discover how many records are made without a drummer.
Drum machines were traditionally used in a fairly undisguised way to lay down simple, rock-steady, four in the bar patterns that ideally complemented the disco boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
As the machines became more versatile some artistes incorporated their mechanical scope and weird sounds to produce drum tracks that were clearly a new sort of instrumentation altogether.
Malcolm McLaren's "Buffalo Gals" with its impossibly fast bass drum pattern, rigidly executed breaks and synthesised sound was one example. More recently on "People Are People" Depeche Mode have used their machine to simulate all sorts of "industrial" noises (again in a very rigid, robotic way) which are linked to visual images of the group banging chains with iron bars, punching bells, firing ships' guns and so forth.
But what of records like Shannon's "Let The Music Play", Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and the soulful "Your Love Is King" by Sade, all recorded using drum machines? Here the simulation of a real drummer is undetectable to all but the most trained ear.
Drum machines can now, theoretically, duplicate anything a drummer can do, including "mistakes" (the Drum Tracks unit for instance can produce an enthrallingly realistic botched press roll).
Drum machines can also produce endless varieties of sounds and play ridiculously complicated patterns, which even a virtuoso drummer would be unable to match. It will play them in perfect time, every time, at the touch of a button. They don't need food, encouragement, nor payment, and while some drummers are beginning to pick up work as programmers, at present the majority of drum machine tracks are programmed by producers.
"They've taken a lot of work away from studio drummers," says Rockschool drummer and session player Geoff Nicholls, "particularly at the bottom end of the market, where you get little sessions for the nine out of ten records that don't get released — demos, jingles and bits and pieces. It's so much easier for people to demo with drum machines than to mess around with drums. Drummers do program drum machines, but as often as not the songwriter or producer will do it himself."
Drummer and producer Richard Burgess agrees that in the short term some drummers are losing work to the machines, but feels that things are already beginning to settle down.
"In the same way that the synthesiser has now taken its place alongside real instruments, I think people are getting over their original fascination with drum machines, and are more concerned with using the right instrument for the right application.
"Also, the intelligent drummer has embraced the drum machine and brought it into his repertoire in the same way that the intelligent drummer embraced Syndrums with all their faults, and the Chinese cymbal before that. To me drum machines are just another thing that you add to your arsenal.
"The best way, if you're a drummer, to meet this 'threat' is to familiarise yourself with every kind of drum machine. I happen to think that drummers program the best drum patterns, and the only defence is to get in there and program better drum patterns than the producer. I'm sure most producers would hire a drummer for the purposes of programming if they thought that the drummer would be able to come up with something that would lift the track."
Andy Ebsworth, Any Trouble's drummer, is another player to embrace the new technology. He programmed percussion on a recent Graham Parker album, and Any Trouble themselves used the Linn drum on their last album. Far from limiting the drummer's contribution he feels that the range of expression, effects and patterns available on a drum machine enhance the drummer's art.
"The sky's the limit," he says, "especially now with the digitally-stored stuff and all the new sounds. It's not limited to the Thompson Twins or Howard Jones — it's as broad as you want to make it. Any Trouble decided to use a drum machine after we'd heard the 'Sexual Healing' album. That impressed us greatly because it's a soul album and it sounds fantastic; we wanted all the nice little effects, the handclaps and so on."
Richard Burgess notes the way in which the challenge of the drum machine is already beginning to affect the drummer's approach to the instrument. Drummers, particularly when playing live, are being forced to tackle the complicated drum patterns originally devised for machines.
"I saw Shannon live in New York a few weeks ago, and she has a real drummer on stage who's coping with some pretty complex patterns which were recorded using a drum machine. And that's pretty exciting. I think for the last six or seven years drumming was getting pretty boring. The dance factor became very important, and in order to keep strict time, drummers would all play four in the bar on the bass drum, two and four on the snare, and either eighths or sixteenths on the hi-hat, which is the most boring pattern to play. But drum machines are always in time so they removed the problem of the complicated pattern not being good for dancing to, and now drummers hearing those patterns successfully applied by machines are starting to play them themselves and we're seeing a lot more imaginative drumming as a result."
Spandau Ballet's John Keeble echoed this comment in a recent One Two Testing interview with Tony Bacon.
"I've been trying some double bass drum stuff where I'm almost imitating the Linn," he said. "A lot of disco records now have 'dukkadukkaduk-dukkaduk' bass drum stuff, impossible to play with one bass drum. It's quite a turnaround really — humans imitating machines. It's quite interesting messing around with that sort of stuff..."
Geoff Nicholls also sees machines as introducing new ideas to the drummer's repertoire via the programming of producers who are not themselves drummers.
"A producer might construct a pattern that no drummer would think of, simply because as a drummer you learn certain ways of playing your instrument that always tend to lead you in certain directions. But hearing new patterns which a producer has concocted might lead your playing into a different direction, and I'm sure this is beginning to happen. Also drum machines have forced drummers to look more carefully at their time-keeping, which can only be a good thing.
"I've noticed that in a live situation some bands have taken to using a drum machine to put down a basic rhythm track leaving the drummer free to work on top of it. Reflex did it on the Tube. That looked pretty exciting."
Perhaps in the same way that rock opened up in the 1970s to include a lot more percussion along with the drum kit, we will now see a further expansion whereby machines take over the donkey work while the kit player is freed to explore more interesting rhythmic avenues. Player and machine in perfect harmony? Perhaps, but can a machine produce the same feel as a human being?
Nicholls: "I don't think that you can in any way compare a track done by a Linn drum with a track done by a great drummer. There's absolutely no comparison at all. There isn't any feel in a drum machine. People talk about programming feel, but to me that is a contradiction in terms. Having said that, I remember people used to say that you couldn't get any feel out of a synthesiser, and yet look at what Joe Zawinul can do with a synthesiser. I expect we'll get used to drum machines."
This is a good point. My father still regards the electric guitar as a musical instrument of dubious validity, while I remember my old grandfather, rest his soul, averring that in his day "real" singers didn't need to use microphones! Every generation regards successive technological advances with deep suspicion, and the drum machine is another stage in this evolutionary process. As Geoff Nicholls says, "The drum kit won't disappear, but I can see it being relegated to a position something like the acoustic piano is today."
Steve Levine, Culture Club's producer and now a solo recording artist himself, is solidly behind the machines.
"Drum machines never suppress talent, they only enhance it. A drum machine is a tool, and in the hands of someone who perhaps isn't a great musician but has a lot of good ideas, a drum machine is the perfect aid to creativity. It makes it that much easier for an idea to be translated into music. But there are also many great musicians deriving benefit from drum machines. People tend to associate drum machines with bands like the Human League, who have given machines a bad name, but take Quincy Jones, who's a great favourite of mine; I don't think people realise how many machines he uses on his records. The Frankie Goes To Hollywood record was an excellent use of a drum machine, as was Sade's 'Your Love Is King' where there's a wonderful feel."
Interestingly, none of the people I spoke to was aware of anyone in particular making a name for themselves specifically as a drum programmer. While they all admired certain recordings, the actual people who programmed the drum tracks were rarely singled out. If anything, my respondents were more aware of which machine had been used, be it a Roland, a Linn or a Fairlight.
Iain McNabb's comment that drum machines tend to produce soulless, monotonous patterns is accepted as a criticism of past work, but is less valid now with the increasing variety of sounds at the fingertips of more adept programmers. In the old days drum machine sounds were very much limited to what the factory gave you, but now with the digital sampling system there is more variety available.
Steve Levine: "The sound of the Linn is becoming very personal. I've got a selection of about 30 snare drums, 15 to 20 bass drums, and loads of different cymbals and things, so I can just put in chips to suit the particular track. Live sounds, dead sounds, bass drums played with wooden, leather and felt beaters.
"The problem with Linns in the past was that people just tended to buy them and use them with the factory sound. But if you use your own sound it'll have your own characteristics. I just hire a bass drum or snare drum, whatever I need, mike it up in the studio and sample it. Send it off on 15 ips tape to America and in about five weeks time you get your chips back. The sound you get back on the chip is never exactly the same as what you send them, but it's close enough."
In short, then, the drum machine now offers the would-be recording artists, be they producer, drummer, or anyone else, a range of sounds and patterns well outside the reach of what a human drummer can offer with an acoustic or even electronic drum kit. Technological advances are often a mixed blessing and there can be little doubt that the role of the studio session drummer is now being seriously challenged.
However, in the live setting it seems both audience and artist still want a real drummer, and the challenge of matching up to the standards set by the machines is encouraging a re-appraisal of drumming styles which may ironically prove a greater stimulus to players than any development since the inception of the modern drum kit.
One Two Testing - Jul 1984
Donated & scanned by: Simon Dell
Feature by David Sinclair
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